Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Inherit the Wind
Full to the brim with righteous indignation, a large, rowdy, fundamentalist crowd descended into the courtroom. Replete with placards and signs covered with biblical notions, chanting and singing with great enthusiasm, they were appallingly sure of their welcome.
Thus was the opening night audience forcefully baptized, with beliefs held fast to the boney, pious chests of the inhabitants of small-town USA, in the opening scenes of Inherit the Wind.
Many years ago, I watched the black and white 1960 film version of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Broadway play. Enamored as I was then with Gene Kelly's good looks and Spencer Tracy's sharp intellect, the themes of McCarthyism, censorship, and intellectual freedom were lost on my teenage self. Not so now. This fictional tale originally staged in 1955 leans heavily on the framework of the actual Scopes trial of 1925, serving to warn us and to challenge the influence of the ever-present and increasingly powerful extreme right.
At The Adobe Theater, a "Who's Who" of exemplary local theatrical talent, from New Mexico's most beloved to welcome new (to me) faces, seamlessly and effortlessly create one of the finest, most carefully crafted dramas I've seen in a very long time. In yet another stellar job of directing, James Cady draws out the best from every actor he works with.
I suppose here is a good place to mention that the authors took a great deal of license with the facts surrounding the actual trial, aka the Scopes "Monkey Trial." The 1925 passing of Tennessee's Butler Act did forbid the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools, so the ACLU advertised for a teacher willing to take part in a test case challenging the constitutionality of the bill. Scopes, a 24-year-old substitute teacher, volunteered. Clarence Darrow, fresh from his defense of Leopold and Loeb, defended Scopes, and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution. Reporter H.L. Mencken covered the trial and really was, by all accounts, an egotistical, scoffing, mocking, scathing man.
Though this is a large cast, the stage never feels overcrowded. Throughout the entire performance, the actors in the courthouse setting stay in character, with perfect individuality. They all seem wonderfully natural in their reactions.
In the sweltering courtroom it is kindly bailiff Meeker who shows a gentle understanding to prisoner Bertram Cates (fictional stand-in for Scopes). Played by Tyler Alan Strand and Ed Benson, respectively, we glimpse the former's sympathy toward the young teacher. Murmurs of disgust from the crowd accompany news of Drummond (modeled on Darrow and played by Phillip J. Shortell) defending Cates. The loud appreciation for Matthew Harrison Brady (modeled on Bryan), a popular local man, is exceeded only by the outright hatred of Drummond. The entire play, side stories notwithstanding, serves only to guide us to the finale–a clash between two old bulls with a long history behind them. All roads, directly or otherwise, lead to them.
And how wonderfully diverse these roads are–and how well, and often appalling, the portrayals are presented. Jeff Dolecek, whom I last saw in A Tuna Christmas, is Reverend Jeremiah Brown, father of Cates' love interest Rachel Brown (Shannon Hayes). In a wonderful performance, Dolecek is horrifying in his portrayal of a man blinded by his own religiosity. That his congregation are like sheep is more horrifying still. Equally blind and justified, though in a different way, is Vernon Poitras' portrayal of the Judge. Poitras does a really good job with this role. The authors' use of a ridiculous and hilarious scenario involving the creation of colonels, is handled beautifully, and Poitras has exactly the level of gravitas to make it funnier, but sadly very telling. Later on, with only a few quiet words, Joel Daniel Miller's Mr. Stebbins breaks our hearts.
The result is a foregone conclusion, but Drummond, with his fancy suspenders and initialed briefcase, is determined to make his mark. Which brings us to the pivotal part of the play. I had wondered who Cady would cast as a foil to what I knew would be a terrific Shortell as Drummond. I hoped whoever it was wouldn't ruin the play by not being worthy. I needn't have worried–Paul Ford gives a powerful performance as Brady. You could hear a pin drop during the final battle, Drummond's cross-examination of Brady. It's hard to describe what a wonderful scene this is. It's perfect. On one side is the crusading, sometimes shambling lawyer, a sly genius who lures his victims into his lair; on the other is a fanatical, three-time presidential candidate, his personal vanity used as a shield. Both men are fantastic. That scene alone is worth the price of a ticket, it's so, so good.
With his co-council Tom Davenport (Michael Weppler) looking on, a single-minded Drummond systematically destroys Brady. We witness the utter humiliation of a man. Drummond punches holes in Brady's long-held religious beliefs, crushing his fragile ego, leading him to inevitable defeat. In the aftermath, we find the vestiges of a man, Brady's pyrrhic legal victory no antidote for his public downfall. Brady's wife, beautifully played by Margie Maes, leads him away, creating a gentle, tragic moment. The passion and talent displayed by both men is memorable. These are really spectacular performances, highlighting the production.
The unassuming Drummond lost the case but won so much more. The ending, in which Drummond reprimands E.K. Hornbeck (modeled on Mencken, with a good performance by Joe Dallacqua), then weighs up the two books (Charles Darwin's "The Descent of Man" and The Bible) before departing, leaves us with the impression that we are in the presence of a compassionate human being. I highly recommend this production.
Much acclaim must go to the bevy of production support. Everything–costumes, props, set, lighting, painting, and sound design–is harmoniously spot-on.
Inherit the Wind runs through March 26, 2023, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th street NW Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. General admission $20. Discount $17 (seniors, students, ATG/PBS members, Military First responders). PWYW Thursday, March 23. For information and tickets, please visit www.adobetheater.org/.